“My cousin calls me MONKEY!” my student “Isabel” tittered.
My heart race quickened. I had been enjoying listening to this adorable six-year-old Hispanic child prattle, as many six-year-olds do, during our reading tutoring session. It was our first time meeting, so I marveled at our easy rapport. Surely she was not going to take this conversation where my heart was telling me it was about to go.
“Why does he call you monkey?” I asked.
Isabel’s bright, almond eyes locked with mine as she twirled the ends of her long, brunette pigtails. “Becaaaaause my uncle calls me BLACKIE!”
In the second it took her to move on to the next topic, my mind shifted between all of these thoughts: Maybe in her family, the terms blackie and monkey don’t correlate the way they do for me. Maybe she misinterpreted the nicknames? Perhaps she didn’t say blackie. Did she change the topic so quickly because she knew that she said something wrong? She’s only six, though. Is this little girl mocking me? Ugh, there are so many people around –- what if she didn’t know what she was saying and I exacerbate the situation with my soapbox lecture?
I didn't know how to begin discussing this issue with a child, so I just continued teaching her sight words.
My internal battle over addressing Isabel’s racial slur points to the insidious effects of racial microaggressions. When targeted with one, I'm often left in a state of shock. I struggle to figure out how to properly deal with the microaggression and blame myself if I don't react suitably, or feel hopeless if I express my outrage and see nothing productive come of it.
The term “racial microaggression” was first used in the 1970s by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD. A definition of the term from Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, states, in part, that “Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color.”
For me, racism and racial prejudices, like death, are unfortunate fixtures of life. But knowing they exist doesn't make being confronted with them any less jarring. And racial microaggressions are especially jarring because they can be so fleeting and delivered with such nonchalance.
I consider my Duke University alumni interview to be the most egregious racial microaggression I have ever experienced because of my visceral reaction to it. My former pediatrician started the interview by telling me that my acceptance into Duke hinged solely on the amount of black applicants they were accepting. He went on to share his concern that I would be receiving many thin letters in response to my applications to so many Ivy League schools, and expressed how proud and happy he was that I was not. Hanging. On. Street. Corners. Like. The. Rest. Of. Them.
I am sure he said lots more bullshit but I couldn't hear him over my sobbing. Yes. I bawled right in his face.
Seven years later, I still can't describe the overwhelming rush of emotions that came over me in that moment. The overarching feeling was that this entire conversation felt so unfair and I couldn't understand why someone I respected, who I thought had more sense, would treat me like I was less than because of the color of my skin. I felt so helpless in the face of such unexpected disrespect that I reacted like a toddler who cries because she has a limited ability to comprehend or express her frustration.
To this day, I feel a searing disappointment at the fact that I didn't simply get up and walk out of the interview, or tell him off. I hope karma has taken care of him. But I recently fantasized about catching him in the streets and slapping him in the face with my Penn diploma.
I fared a bit better reaction-wise when my high school French teacher asked me, the only black student in the classroom, to talk about EBONICS to complement her lesson on verlan, a form of French slang. I stayed silent for a few moments, as I looked around at my classmates’ impassive faces, waiting for the realization to set in that she was in fact speaking to me.
I coolly responded, “Je ne comprende pas.” But as great as it felt to deny her the reaction she thought she was going to get, I feel like I did us both a disservice by not pulling her aside to explain why that type of discourse in the classroom was unacceptable to me.
My strongest response to a microaggression had to have been when I defended my friends as a member of my high school’s disciplinary committee. A group of 9th and 10th graders were caught drinking on school property during a dance and, when faced with suspension, they all blamed an easy target and claimed that six to seven large African American males they had never seen before offered them the alcohol. They should have been more creative because the only unfamiliar black men that attended the dance were brought by me and my friends.
I remember the tense atmosphere in the room. The students received a just punishment, but I will never forget how alone I felt in my indignation.
From my own experiences I know that dealing with racial microaggressions will always be complicated. But I want to do a better job of addressing them in the moment, instead of balking. I want to make microaggressors feel as uncomfortable as they make me feel. I think my mom provides a great example of this practice.
When my family and I moved into our home on a suburban cul-de-sac 19 years ago, we were welcomed to the neighborhood by cop cars. A neighbor had called 911 to report our move-in as a break-in.
I'm proud of my mom for not getting mired in thoughts like, We did move at night. Maybe it was so late that our neighbor could not see what was going on and got scared. Instead, the morning after we moved in, my mother knocked on the offending neighbor’s door to ask if she was the one who called the police. Our neighbor’s face reddened and she stammered as she explained that she did not know that our house had been sold. My mom simply pointed out the obvious: Would thieves use the front door?
I can only hope to be as unflappable as my mother. Then maybe next time I can handle a six-year-old.
What would you have said to Isabel if you were in my shoes? Would have said anything at all?